“We have come to believe it an illness – involves those about us in a way no other human sickness can. If a person has cancer all are sorry for him and no one is angry or hurt. But not so with the alcoholic illness, for with it there goes annihilation of all the things worth while in life. It engulfs all whose lives touch the sufferer’s. It brings misunderstanding, fierce resentment, financial insecurity, disgusted friends and employers, warped lives of blameless children, sad wives and parents – anyone can increase the list.” -Alcoholics Anonymous, There is a Solution.
Though written some nearly 80 years ago, these words from the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous are as true today as when Bill Wilson penned them. For my first blog entry I wanted to take some time to write about why I believe the disease model is so critical for both those suffering from the disease of addiction, and those who love them. The disease model is the first step in cultivating compassion for fellow travelers on the path, as well as forgiveness for oneself for being unable to cultivate the will-power to overcome addiction.
One of the biggest arguments I have heard from clients and their family members over the years is that embracing the disease model of addiction means that they are abdicating responsibility for their actions and consequences while intoxicated. In truth, the exact opposite is true. When a man or woman embraces the disease model of addiction there is a huge amount of responsibility that the addict is asked to shoulder. The sufferer must acknowledge that they have the duty to treat their disease on a daily basis, or else. Treating the disease means taking certain actions such as going to support group meetings, engaging in therapy, doing internal work to address erratic emotions, and making amends to those who they have harmed through selfish actions or neglect. They are taught that failing to do so will result in an eventual return to their addiction, or at the very least unhappiness.
I am reminded of the belief that some westerners have in regards to Buddhism’s first Noble Truth, “Life is suffering.” This statement seems pessimistic and fatalistic if taken on it’s own. A person could justify a life of harming or being indifferent to others by claiming that life is suffering anyway, so what does it matter? Similarly, a person could use the disease model of addiction to deny responsibility for their actions, but this not what the finger is pointing at. Fortunately, the Buddha did not stop with one pithy statement about the nature of things, and the disease model of addiction does not stop with a fatal diagnosis. As with many things we encounter, the despair of hopelessness precedes the arrival of hope.
Before I was introduced to the disease model of addiction, I had been leading a life of quiet desperation, always wondering what was different about me, but never finding a shoe that fit. That type of loneliness has been the nail in the coffin for many addicts who feel as if they are horrible people who deserve to live in misery.